Gospel of no deal
Forget the chatter about the Tory Party being ‘doomed’, writes Eddie Ford. We could, however, see a significant realignment of British politics
As I write, there are still 11 MPs standing for the Tory leadership after junior ministers James Cleverly and Kit Malthouse withdrew from the race. It is widely expected that defence secretary Penny Mordaunt will shortly make a decision about whether to join the contest, with the possibility that Steve Baker of the misnamed European Research Group might also climb into the arena.1
There were complaints from the onset that the size of the field was making the contest a “shambles” and “tragic farce”, though I was rather enjoying it myself. In the end, the 1922 Committee decided this week to change the rules - or move the goalposts, depending on your opinion. From now on, candidates will need to secure the backing of eight other colleagues rather than just a proposer and seconder. The committee has also set thresholds for how many votes candidates will need from MPs to reach the next round of the contest: at least 17 in the first ballot and 33 in the second - ie, 5% and 10% of the 313 Tory MPs (the bottom-placed candidate is eliminated, irrespective of the number of votes received).
The first ballot will take place on June 13, with further rounds of voting scheduled for the following week until only two hopefuls are left - with the entire Tory membership of about 160,0002 getting the final say on the matter. If everything goes to plan, the new leader will be announced in the week beginning July 22. Even at this stage, you cannot entirely dismiss the possibility that we will see yet another coronation - the other candidates all eventually standing down in the spirit of party unity.
Needless to say, this rule change will favour the more established candidates, who have already built up support - something described as “slightly disappointing” by Sam Gyimah, who argued (perhaps naively) that people had put themselves forward on the basis of a system that had been in place for many years. At the moment, Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and London mayor, is comfortably ahead, with 46 MPs openly declaring their support - followed by Jeremy Hunt on 32, Michael Gove (29), Dominic Raab (24), Sajid Javid (17) and Matt Hancock (11), the others trailing far behind.3 However, at least 140 Conservative MPs have yet to declare support for any candidate, with a large rump of Tory centrists/liberals and a smaller group of hard Brexiteers still holding back.
But if Johnson is one of the final two who go out to the party rank and file for endorsement, he will win by a landslide - nobody disputes that, so it all depends on how many MPs continue to back him as the other contenders are eliminated. Victory is not yet certain for the former London mayor, there might be a few twists and turns along the way, but he is obviously the one to beat.
‘Team Boris’ formally launched its campaign at the beginning of the week, releasing a video on social media of their man talking to voters on the campaign trail in ‘the mother of all marginals’, Peterborough, for the June 6 parliamentary by-election.
Johnson reiterated his promise to take Britain out of the European Union, “deal or no deal” by October 31 and called for more money for schools and the police. Of course, the other contenders have been making spending pledges as well. The winner so far in this bidding war is Esther McVey, who pledged an extra £4 billion a year for schools - which means nothing, as she does not have a hope of becoming the next Tory leader. Matt Hancock comes second with a promise to increase the schools budget by £3 billion a year, beating the more miserly Michael Gove’s £1 billion, but in a different league altogether, compared to Johnson’s much trumpeted pledge in The Daily Telegraph - estimated to be worth a measly £50 million a year.
But Johnson was the star attraction, naturally enough, at a leadership hustings on June 4 hosted by the One Nation group of 60 MPs - which is rather ironic, given that the group’s central mission is to prevent the election of any candidate willing to contemplate a no-deal Brexit. Johnson warned that the Tories face “potential extinction” if they do not deliver Brexit by October 31 as planned, the party will “not be forgiven”.
He went on to say that he was best placed to beat off Jeremy Corbyn and “put Nigel Farage back in his box”, saying the Tories needed to “stop banging on about Brexit and put that bawling baby to bed, pacify it and recapture the political agenda with one-nation Conservatism” - although home secretary Sajid Javid declared that the Tories could not “beat the Brexit Party by becoming the Brexit Party”. Johnson also ruled out, as did the other challengers, calling a snap general election or proroguing parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit. Of course, this is utter nonsense, as Johnson will still face the same parliamentary arithmetic as the departing prime minister, with no negotiated plan or deal with the EU that can pass muster with the Democratic Unionist Party or the rest of parliament. However, the plain reality is that most MPs backing Johnson do not believe the promise not to hold an early general election - and, as we will see, it could well be in his interest to do just that.
As expected, Johnson got strong support from another source - Donald Trump said he would make an “excellent” leader before his state visit to the UK, and praised him again at a slightly excruciating press conference with Theresa May on June 3, remarking that “he’d do a very good job”. The US president also suggested that Nigel Farage should be made part of the Brexit negotiating team - but somehow I don’t think that one will be taken up.
Following the local and European elections nightmare, there has been a lot of chatter about the Tories being “doomed”, including from George Osborne in the Evening Standard, Peter Hitchins in the Mail Online, John Rentoul in The Independent, various commentators on the BBC news, and so on.
Yet, however much we might wish that to be true, the idea that the centuries-old Conservative Party - a class party with roots in society and endless powerful connections - is going to disappear from the pages of history is for the birds. In fact, when you listen to the US president endorsing Boris Johnson and no deal, it is time to start taking the prospect of Brexit seriously - not to imagine the Tories disappearing in a puff of smoke. If Boris Johnson gets shortlisted, you would expect the Mail, Sun, Telegraph, etc to pile in behind him - bigging up his profile and spreading the gospel of no deal.
Under those circumstances, you would expect the Tory Party to start to recover in the opinion polls and for Johnson to soak up Brexit Party support and votes. And if he really wants to carry out any of his programme, which presumably he does - though with Boris Johnson you can never tell for sure what he will do next - then he will call a general election, no matter what he said at the One Nation hustings. With a shiny new prime minister who has campaigned for Brexit, rather than viewing it purely as a damage-limitation exercise, and a reconfigured parliament - assuming things go well for the Tories - then things could look entirely different, especially when the global hegemon under its current president wants Brexit. It almost goes without saying that a president Hillary Clinton would have taken an entirely different view.
What would a Boris Johnson-led Brexit look like? Not too hard to work out, if truth be told. Donald Trump would insist on a hard deal with the UK, which would have to pay its pound of flesh in chlorinated chicken and hormone-grown beef. Almost certainly, Britain would have to open up the national health service further to predatory American companies - Trump virtually admitted as much at his June 4 press conference. Any lingering doubts you might have had about Britain getting involved in US military adventures in the Middle East would be quickly dispelled - the UK would be a loyal servant of US imperialism. In other words, a Boris Johnson premiership would represent a further step to the right in mainstream British politics.
Perhaps not so welcome for Johnson’s ambitions are the findings of the Conservative peer and polling expert, Robert Hayward.4 After analysing a slew of recent polls on the parties and candidates, Hayward concluded a new Tory leader would not win a general election unless they were “transfer-friendly” - while Boris Johnson was very popular with a section of the electorate, Hayward pointed to a recent YouGov poll that suggested as many as 23% of respondents who had voted Conservative in 2017 thought Johnson would be a “very bad” prime minister. In the same poll, while 28% of the public, as opposed to self-identifying Tories, thought he would make a good prime minister, 54% thought he would make a lousy one.
What needs to be mentioned here is the long delayed trigger ballot reform that might finally be coming to the Labour Party - which itself was a compromise measure agreed at last year’s Liverpool conference. If it does go ahead, and Boris Johnson becomes the new Tory leader and prime minister, we could potentially be seeing a significant realignment of British politics. True, in the event of a no-deal Brexit being on the cards, there will not be mass defections of Tory MPs to the Lib Dems - but some will perhaps make the journey. On the other hand, under conditions of trigger ballots there will be a lot of very worried sitting Labour MPs, knowing that they will face the wrath of their local membership for their opposition to Jeremy Corbyn. In which case you could imagine the migration of rightwingers to either the Lib Dems or something new. There has previously been talk of anti-Corbyn MPs appointing their own leader and taking the ‘Short money’ allocated annually to the opposition parties, perhaps depriving the ‘official’ Labour Party of funds in the process.
. . www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/05/25/conservative-membership-surge-amid-fears-campaign-swing-leadership.↩